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Diplomacy is ‘best path’ to thwart Iran nukes, Biden aide tells Israelis

In meeting with Israeli counterpart in DC, US national security adviser reiterates that Washington is prepared to consider other options if talks to revive JCPOA fail

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

National Security Council chairman Eyal Hulata (L) and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in front of the White House on October 5, 2021. (Jake Sullivan/Twitter)
National Security Council chairman Eyal Hulata (L) and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in front of the White House on October 5, 2021. (Jake Sullivan/Twitter)

United States National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan reiterated the Biden administration’s preference for diplomatic efforts to revive the Iran nuclear agreement over military action against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, during a meeting with his Israeli counterpart in Washington on Tuesday.

Sullivan “explained that this administration believes diplomacy is the best path to achieve that goal [ensuring Iran never obtains nuclear weapons], while also noting that the president has made clear that if diplomacy fails, the United States is prepared to turn to other options,” a White House readout said.

Israel opposes the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which former US president Barack Obama signed in 2015, and his successor Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018. However, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has told current US President Joe Biden that he would not publicly campaign against the JCPOA the way his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu did.

Washington says that the new government in Iran has projected interest, through intermediaries, in returning to negotiations that took place in Vienna aimed at reviving the JCPOA but have remained idle since June. However, the Biden administration has also clarified that its patience is running out.

“We still believe very strongly that the diplomatic path remains the best path for resolving this issue,” a senior US official told reporters during a Monday briefing. “Since we came in we have not lifted any sanctions, we are not going to pay upfront, and we’ve made that very clear.”

Sullivan hosted an Israeli delegation, led by National Security Council chairman Eyal Hulata, for a meeting on Tuesday of the US-Israel Strategic Consultative Group (SRG), an inter-agency bilateral forum established in March for discussing Iran and other regional security issues.

TV cameras in front of the ‘Grand Hotel Vienna’ where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, on June 20, 2021. (Florian Schroetter/AP)

The SRG includes representatives from the military, diplomatic and intelligence communities in both Israel and the US. The forum has met several times in recent months, but the Tuesday morning session was the first time it was convened in person.

“The two sides exchanged views on the most pressing challenges impacting the security and stability of the region, and expressed their shared determination to address the threats facing Israel and regional partners,” the White House readout said.

“Sullivan emphasized President Biden’s fundamental commitment to Israel’s security and to ensuring that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon,” it added.

Tuesday’s session was the third time Sullivan has hosted Hulata for talks in Washington, after doing so twice in August.

“We’ve been engaged in regular contact with the Bennett administration on the many threats posed by Iran, including its nuclear program, its destabilizing regional activities, its ballistic missile program, support for terrorism, [and the] Iranian-backed UAV network,” the senior official said.

The official added that there is an agreement between the sides “of the extent to which Iran’s nuclear program has dramatically broken out of the box since the previous administration left the Iran nuclear deal.”

Eyal Hulata in an undated photograph. (Courtesy)

“We’re very closely aligned on how we see the bigger picture. We don’t see eye-to-eye on every single issue, but there’s a great deal of alignment both on how we see the challenges presented by Iran and how to ensure that we are effectively utilizing the full range of tools at our disposal,” he said.

In addition to the SRG meeting, Sullivan and Hulata will hold a separate session to discuss other issues relating to the US-Israel bilateral relationship. This will include US security assistance to Israel, along with the strengthening and expansion of the Abraham Accords.

The Biden administration has repeatedly emphasized its commitment to the Abraham Accords, an initiative launched by Trump, but has yet to make headway on the issue, as its foreign policy priorities are largely focused elsewhere. The agreements have thus far seen the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan agree to normalize ties with Israel.

“We’ll also raise the current situation with the Palestinians, including the importance of ensuring calm in Gaza, which was a key topic in [Sullivan’s] meetings in Cairo a week ago, and more broadly the importance of efforts to dampen potential flash-points in the West Bank and Gaza and take steps to improve the lives of Palestinians,” the senior official said.

Sullivan met with Egyptian security officials last week during a regional tour and discussed Cairo’s efforts to broker a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Gaza-ruling Hamas.

Asked whether the US planned to pressure Israel on its plans to further settlement growth in the West Bank, the senior official did not comment directly on the matter, instead saying that the Biden administration opposes unilateral steps by Israelis and Palestinians and wants to see equal levels of freedom and prosperity for both.

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